I went to report on a Cree culture camp. It ended up changing my life

Unreserved's Kyle Muzyka headed to kâniyâsihk to spend time with Kevin Lewis, and learn how to build a birchbark canoe. But he took away much more than that.
Kevin Lewis paddles on Ministikwan Lake, a place he’s known all his life. He runs kâniyâsihk Culture Camps, a Cree culture camp where people can come and learn traditional Cree ways. (Kyle Muzyka)

This segment originally aired on November 29, 2020.

Kevin Lewis takes 60 steps out his front door and he's in the bush — he points out sweetgrass, spruce trees, wild mint — just off Ministikwan Lake in Saskatchewan.

He points to kâniyâsihk, one of the points in a bay in the lake, where he used to swim, eat cattails to keep his stomach full, and where he used to have fires at night.

He points across the lake, where he's harvested animals, trees, other medicines. It's where he harvested the birch bark for the fifth birchbark canoe he's building.

This canoe was built by the mostly transient community that passes through the kâniyâsihk culture camp during the summer. Friends harvesting spruce gum here, family cutting some birch there. 

Before I knew it, he had me helping, too.

I'm Métis and Cree on my mom's side of the family, from Treaty 8 in northern Alberta. There are many First Nations and Métis communities nearby, but my only connections are common family last names.

The only medicine picking I did was the raspberry bush outside nohkom's (my grandma's) house. Hunting? Hardly. And I'd certainly never built a canoe before.

I grew up without much exposure to that side of me — it had been ripped away from us a couple of generations ago when nohkom was taken to a residential day school in the '50s. I knew much of what I was going to experience at kâniyâsihk would be new to me.

But I didn't expect it to be profound.

Lewis points towards kâniyâsihk, one of the points in the lake after which the camp is named. (Kyle Muzyka)

Built by the community, Lewis says the canoe was built with that spirit in mind, too. wahkohtowin, he says. Cree for kinship. 

But not just the kinship he's felt from those who helped him in the literal sense — he also feels that kinship from his ancestors, too. He feels that kinship from those who built canoes in the '40s, the last time a birchbark canoe was built in Lewis's community of Island Lake First Nation.

He also feels that kinship from his ancestors who couldn't build them — and he feels accomplished knowing he revitalized a practice that had been dead for more than 70 years.

Effects of Residential school

Lewis's camp is about a half-hour drive from any other community. 

There's no cell service. 

But Lewis says that remoteness was an advantage.

"The semi-isolation is kind of good for us … we kept the language a little longer, also the ceremonies, the kinship, connection to land," Lewis explains. "[But] the residential school effects, we do have them. The intergenerational trauma, we do have [it]."

That intergenerational trauma meant it was a challenge to maintain much tradition, including building the birchbark canoe. 

For centuries, Cree people built canoes out of birchbark, using harvested materials and tools. But the art had been lost — until Lewis had his hand forced as a vice-principal at the reserve school.

One of those natural materials, spruce root, soaks in a bucket, ready to be used to sew the canoe together. (Kyle Muzyka)

His industrial arts teacher asked for some funding for materials. Lewis didn't have any extra funding — so he started thinking outside the four walls of the school. 

"I was thinking, 'Well, why don't we take them outside? We live in the bush, right?" Lewis explains. He found an elder to teach the students how to make a paddle.

But what good is a paddle without a canoe?

'Our gift to the world'

Traditionally, a Plains Cree birchbark canoe was made from three types of trees: spruce, birch and tamarack.

Birch bark is used for the sides and bottom, tamarack is typically used for sheathing, ribs and the frame, while the spruce tree's root and gum are used to hold the canoe together and waterproof it.

Lewis bends some freshly steamed ribs for the canoe. He’ll tie them together and let them sit to easily snap them in place once the outside frame is built. (Kyle Muzyka)

While the materials in modern canoes have changed, most of the design has not, Lewis says.

"The engineering of that canoe has never, ever been improved. It's been added to, it's been adjusted, it's been adapted to the different environments … but the only thing that's been changed is the material."

"What we're doing on this journey, as we're going, is … reminding people that our ancestors were pretty brilliant to create something like this. It's pretty special."

Lewis is joined on that journey by all the others at the camp, including me. He teaches me how to stitch the canoe together, how to make the pitch used to plug holes. It doesn't feel like school, but I'm learning.

He uses aspects of the canoe to teach subjects you might find in westernized curricula.

It’s still a work in progress, but after lining up the birch bark, the canoe starts to take its shape. (Kyle Muzyka)

There's math in measurements, there's biology in the trees, there's chemistry in the spruce gum mixture. "There's so much cross-cultural themes that are tied to this canoe," Lewis says. "Our engineering, our architecture — all tied into this wonderful little craft.

"It's like our gift to the world."

Modern tools

While the materials are all traditional, Lewis's process is not. He uses drills, heat guns, jigsaws. It's mostly a time-saver, he says. But he also figures his ancestors would laugh at him if they saw him not using the best technology at his disposal. 

"The very first canoe, the very first trees I started peeling, I was using axes," Lewis says. "I was, of course, a lot younger then, so I could paddle even out there to the islands and then peel them with a knife."

He uses the heat gun to unfold the birch bark, crinkling as we wake it up from its two-year hiatus. 

Lewis bends and folds the bark into place, and suddenly it takes the shape of a canoe. He sews the bark together using a figure-eight stitch with the spruce root.

Lewis uses the spruce root and weaves a figure-eight pattern to sew the birchbark together. (Kyle Muzyka)

Next comes the sheathing — or, the panels on the bottom of the canoe to give the birch bark a bit more support and shape — and snapping the ribs into place.

Finally, using a mixture of spruce gum, charcoal and animal fat, Lewis patches over tiny gaps left by the spruce root.

Sewing and patching the canoe takes time — more time than I had to spend there. Before I left, we went out on the lake.

'Always learning'

The water is calm and the cold air bites a bit. Lewis and I paddle out to kâniyâsihk, where he used to swim with his cousins until dusk. It's where it all started for him.

He pulls a cattail out of the ground and hands me the end of it. It tastes like a mixture of cucumber and celery. 

Lewis says he's heard of people making a type of pastry out of the pollen on a cattail, but he has to do more research.

Lewis is a great teacher — and I think that constant level of curiosity that he has is why.

In the few days I'd been at the camp, he taught me many things — like how to stitch a canoe, how to harvest spruce gum, and a few words in Cree.

Most of all, he taught me about myself. I spent so much of my life looking for my identity. Frankly, I'm still looking. 

Being at kâniyâsihk Culture Camp helped me engage in Cree culture in ways I'd never had the opportunity to before. It was something I knew was missing, but I wasn't sure how to access it.

Lewis showed me that it didn't matter that he grew up immersed in Cree culture and I didn't — we're all always learning. 

I went into this camp wanting to understand the making of a birchbark canoe and I came out with a better understanding of myself. 

"This crazy journey that we've been on … every turn that you go, you're always learning," Lewis says. 

That crazy journey — that canoe he's building — is still very much a work in progress. But we're all a work in progress, so long as we continue to learn.

Lewis paddles the calm waters of Ministikwan Lake, its reflection of the blue sky above it. (Kyle Muzyka)